Spencer Turnbull threw a no-hitter this week which was the most exciting Tigers moment since likely 2016. Naturally the Tigers are still rebuilding and stuck in the team stinks version of the rebuild so attention turned to Turnbull being their best piece to trade in July. The Tigers previously failed to trade Matthew Boyd and Michael Fulmer when they had interest and a conclusion I saw from some of the fanbase and writers was that Turnbull needs to be traded for a nice haul of prospects. This makes sense in theory but when broken down this starts to fall apart. With Fulmer his value was never higher after winning a Rookie of the Year and being an All-Star and with Boyd it became a matter of team control versus what you can get for one less year of a pitcher. Turnbull is a different pitcher.
First things first, Turnbull has been unlucky. Of course when it comes to his 3-17 season he was probably one of the best pitchers on a really bad team that only got him 2.6 runs of support per game. His FIP in his career is 3.64, his WHIP is under 1 so far this year and his xFIP and SIERA have been improving as he refines his command into a pitcher who doesn’t rely on the strikeout and can limit contact and baserunners well. He’s done a great job keeping his fastball elevated and hitting the corners with his off-speed pitches without too many misses, a recipe for success no matter what era of baseball you’ve pitched in. Turnbull is now 28 and has shown improvements and could reach his stride in his early 30’s. Yes, it has only been 6 starts this season but he is looking like a better version of himself, something he had done every season up until the pandemic. It’s a bit different than any situation the Tigers have faced before.
One reason for keeping Turnbull is he doesn’t give up a ton of home runs and that fits the ballpark and if the Tigers can get a solid infield defense behind him, it would easily save him a few runs per season (a reason I think shortstop is such a huge need this off-season). He’s a ground ball pitcher and limits deep fly balls. Turnbull will never be an excellent ace and he will have good days and off days but at the end of the day you’re looking at an above average starter that could stick in the top third of starting pitchers in the MLB, which has value. Also, I believe in Manning, Skubal, and Mize and I still like Faedo and Wentz but as Tigers fans saw with Franklin Perez a pitching prospect can quickly fall from grace. Gary Huckabay, the man who founded Baseball Prospectus said “there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect” which isn’t 100% true but it speaks to the volatility of pitching prospects. Also, every team usually has a veteran in the rotation and that experience of a guy who has had to make tweaks or has experienced certain game situations can help a younger staff with wisdom and they can all play off of each other. So in trading Turnbull, you’re relying almost completely on the young prospects to all work out as you expect. Even with Turnbull has a 3 or 4 behind some of these guys when they get good has some value.
Another issue is the trade return. Al Avila hasn’t made a ton of great trades in his tenure in Detroit. He hasn’t really made a great trade since acquiring Isaac Paredes and Jeimer Candelario for Justin Wilson and Alex Avila. Teams trade smarter now and if you look at recent similar trades the best prospects acquired back for quality big league starting are underwhelming to me. The Pirates got Hudson Head for Joe Musgrove, a top 150-ish prospect and some depth pieces who could work out. For Jameson Taillon the Pirates got a few solid prospects, but no top 100 prospect from the Yankees. The most promising seems to be Miguel Yajure, who could be a solid 3 or 4 if he reaches his full potential. That is essentially what a guy like Taillon, Musgrove or Turnbull are right now. These two factors interacting with each other make me think a possible return right now from a team needing to add a starter like the Cardinals would be something like Zack Thompson, Jhon Torres and a lower level prospect. Nothing that will speed up the rebuild faster. Also, think about the fact a guy like Max Scherzer could be available which will be a more attractive option if you are going for it this year than Turnbull, which lowers his value slightly more.
The thing is the rotation is actually a strength for the Tigers right now. Jose Urena has been an innings eater and dependable veteran to anchor down the rotation while Casey Mize is leaping in his development and Turnbull and Boyd have pitched like everyone thought they could and some of their peripherals suggest. Tarik Skubal is struggling a bit this year but his stuff can get super nasty and he could turn it around quick. The Tigers have won 88 games since the 2019 season started. They have lost 176. They don’t really have any strengths since then. They traded the best hitter they had in Nicholas Castellanos in 2019, they haven’t had many relievers who sustained a ton of success though Cisnero (a true trade candidate) and Soto have had their moments. Their starting pitching so far is the only thing that has developed and shown promise. No, Spencer Turnbull doesn’t make them a winning team and they will need to score runs for him so he doesn’t go 3-17 in a season where he was worth 2.9 fWAR but trading him does make them a worse team for the time being for the risk of possibly getting a solid hitting prospect maybe. It also takes away a large chunk of what has been a strength and positive part of the team that hasn’t had much go right in the last five seasons. I would try and build around that instead of building using returns from guys like Turnbull. The bottom line is if the Tigers don’t start signing some free agents to multi-year deals (Robbie Grossman wasn’t even a major deal and has worked out very well) then none of what I wrote will even matter, if they just depend of trading guys like Turnbull like they did in 2017 for prospects who have risks then likely they won’t become a good team because they will always have holes that sink anything good on the ship. Turnbull is one of the best players on the team right now and he won’t be a free agent in the near future so there’s no reason to trade him. Instead the Tigers should enjoy his development and what looks like a big step forward and let him get them those extra 3 wins a year while they build around solid veterans like him.